Mexico’s reputation of spicy and colorful dishes has always been part of its distinguishing cultural identity.
Named one of UNESCO’s world heritage cuisines due to its complex variety of recipes, Mexico blends prehispanic elements from the Aztec, Zapotec and Mayan cultures (to name a few) as well as several Spanish ingredients brought to the country since its colonization in the sixteenth century.
But Mexican traditional dishes are not only for the living. During Day of the Dead festivities, tamales and sweet bread (Pan de Muerto) are prepared for the ancestors. Dark Mole Chichilo’s mix of flavours serves as a way of comforting families who have recently lost a loved one. Through these rituals, food becomes a means of connecting with the spiritual world, as well as a gesture of love and remembrance.
In this article we explore the different Mexican dishes and drinks that are related to death and grief and how they blend in with the country’s rich traditions.
Mexico’s Culinary Traditions Feed the Souls of the Living and the Dead
Pozole, once known as tlacatlaolli, is a savory soup that was part of an Aztec ritual to honor Xipe Tótec, the God of spring and regeneration. Historical documents recount that the Tlatoani (Aztec Emperor) and his nobility enjoyed this special soup with the sacrificed human bodies of their enemies. Eating human corpses provided revitalization and strength. Corn and chili were added to enhance the flavor of the dish.
This endocannibalistic tradition was soon replaced with pork and chicken imported from Europe to create the famous red, green, and white pozole varieties across the country.
Today Pozole is eaten in September, as the corn planted at the beginning of the year is ready to be harvested in Autumn. Some families also prepare Pozole for their Day of the Dead altars, as this special soup is loved by many families and their deceased.
Mexican wakes are strongly connected to catholic practices. They take place one or two days after a person has died according to each family’s budget.
Most wakes have an open casket viewing with the deceased dressed in their favorite clothes.
Crowns and flower crosses with the name of the deceased and big portraits decorate the room. Taper-type candles known as cirios are also lit to guide the soul to heaven.
When arriving at a wake, guests are offered hot chocolate, coffee, and sweet bread (conchas, polvorones and galletas) to provide them with strength and energy to pray for the deceased throughout the night. Some families mix coffee with alcohol, a practice known as piquete, which soothes the soul in this difficult time.
After the burial, families and friends gather at the deceased’s home for the novenario (a set of prayers that take place during nine days) with a rosario (rosary). The prayers are meant to guide the deceased to heaven and help them be rid of their sins.
In the ninth day of prayer, the family offers guests tamales (a corn dough-based dish covered in banana leaves) and atole (a Mesoamerican hot corn drink), as a form of thanking them for being present in their grieving period.
Tamales come from pre-hispanic traditions and were also once filled with human meat. They have since been adapted, like Pozole, to poultry, pork, and beef.
Mexico’s ancient civilizations cooked tamales to commemorate the deceased as a ceremonial dish. Today, families also prepare them for Day of the Dead, making them a transition dish between Mictlán, the Aztec underworld, and the world of the living.
Mole Chichilo is a traditional recipe from the state of Oaxaca prepared as a way of grieving. It is cooked after someone has died, usually after the funeral has taken place.
Local chef Evangelina Aquino describes this recipe as a sad mole. “It is prepared when a family says goodbye to a loved one who has passed away.”
It resembles the Mole Negro recipe which is also cooked as a mourning dish in other regions of the country. Mole can be described as a thick sauce made with up to fifty different ingredients. Its dark color comes from a mix of chocolate and chilis. It is usually accompanied by chicken breast or enmoladas (wrapped corn tortilla with chicken or cheese filling).
Mole Chichilo, however, uses less ingredients, taking the sweet traditional mole elements away. It is meant to symbolize grief and mourning.
When family members taste this savory mole, it provides a bittersweet experience or both joy and sorrow, according to chef Catalina Lucas from Tlacolula, Oaxaca.
Dias de los Muertos – Day of the Dead
Commemorating the dead wouldn’t be complete without the most renowned Mexican festivity. The Day of the Dead offers unique culinary traditions which vary across the country. However, there are traditional pastries and candy that can be found in most markets.
When it comes to individual Day of the Dead altars, each family chooses the dishes that will be prepared according to what their deceased family member most enjoyed. The altars are always accompanied by Pan de Muerto, Calaveritas, and other decorative elements such as colorful paper decorations called papel picado, cempasúchil flowers (marigold), candles, and salt crosses. Other popular dishes on many altars include enchiladas, pozole and of course, the beloved tamales.
Pan de Muerto
Pan de Muerto, is a sweet bread with two crossed bones figures on top sprinkled with sugar. It serves as an offering to the dead and will be present in every Día de Muertos altar, usually placed in the fourth level next to candles to symbolize the Eucharist.
This bread piece is also a popular dessert eaten by Mexicans throughout October and November. At first glance, Pan de Muerto, resembles a corpse with legs, arms, and a head in the middle. For some researchers, it represents the four cardinal points of the universe consecrated to the gods Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc, Quetzalcóatl and Xipetotec from the Aztec religion. For others, it’s part of an anthropophagic tradition.
Professor José Luis Curiel explains that eating this corpse-looking bread is a way of mocking and defying death: “Eating the dead is a real pleasure for the Mexican, it is considered the anthropophagy of bread and sugar. The phenomenon is assimilated with respect and irony, it defies death, Mexicans make fun of it by eating it.”
As one walks through local markets in fall season, Calaveritas and other Day of the Dead decorations will be on display on almost every stand. These sugar skulls are also a way of mocking death and can be seen in altars or be given to children with their names engraved to commemorate the holiday.
The process of making calaveritas comes from Islamic Spain, with a technique known as alfeñique where sugar is mixed with water, lemon, egg whites, almond paste and dye to create colorful desserts.
Calaveritas are a reminder to the living that the only thing that’s certain is death.
Even if the ingredients were inherited from the Kingdom of Granada, Calaveritas are a remnant of Aztec and Mayan traditions, who both built skull racks known as tzompantli. The heads of sacrificed victims would be exhibited in rows to honor the ancient gods.
Overall, Calaveritas are a reminder to the living that the only thing that’s certain is death.
Tequila and Mezcal
Where there’s food, there needs to be drinks that accompany the colorful feast. For Day of the Dead tequila and mezcal bottles are always preferred.
They come from Agave plants, a cultural heritage of the Mexican landscape. These two strong alcoholic drinks are drunk as shots but can sometimes be mixed with sodas to create cocktails. A renowned cocktail for Mexicans is Paloma, a mix of tequila, lime juice, and a grapefruit-flavored soda.
In the community of Oconahua, Jalisco, it is accustomed to drink for and with the dead. Family members toast with Tequila in cemeteries to say goodbye. Some even pour tequila in the tomb or coffin during Day of the Dead to have “a drink” with the departed.
It is widely believed that the dead will come at night, crossing the bridge of Mictlán to taste the savory dishes and drinks families have prepared for them.
The following day, when families start cleaning up the altars, they witness how most of the plates have been tasted with only a few crumbs left behind. Some skeptics say that dogs have devoured the food left in the cemeteries, while others truly believe their family members came to feast on their favorite dishes.
Mexican cuisine carries love, heritage, and reverence for those who have passed on.
The culinary traditions of Mexico beautifully illustrate the profound and spiritual connection that exists between the living and the departed. Beyond being delicious dishes to be enjoyed, food becomes a symbolic bridge that unites families and communities with their ancestors and supports them in their grieving period.
From the colorful sweet offerings of the Day of the Dead to the delicate grieving dishes in the state of Oaxaca, Mexican cuisine carries love, heritage, and reverence for those who have passed on. It also shows us how blending flavors, humor, and ancient traditions can help us embrace death as an inevitable part of life’s journey.